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Major TV brands shine but many off-brands lag in our tests

Consumer Reports News: December 11, 2012 02:38 PM

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A quick look at our latest TV Ratings confirms that one thing you get with most major brands is very good or excellent picture quality. That's something that's not always the case with many lesser-known brands, though you may find their low prices appealing.

Also, our new TV Ratings (available to subscribers) include models that several editors and testers picked as our favorite plasma TV (a Panasonic) and LCD TV (a Sony). Both are pricier flagship sets with top-rated picture detail, very accurate colors, and minimal motion blur on fast-moving scenes. And both have excellent black-level performance—not surprising for the plasma, but especially impressive for an LCD TV.

Over the past few months, we've added a lot of secondary and tertiary TV brands—including Coby, Element, Haier, Hisense, Sceptre, and TCL—to our tests to get a better idea of how these lower-priced TVs perform. We've already included a number of secondary brands, including Dynex and Insignia (Best Buy's house brands), Magnavox, RCA, and Westinghouse, in our TV Ratings for several years. (Note that while brands such as Magnavox and RCA are quite familiar names, they're no longer associated with the original company, and are licensed to other entities. Read "TV Brands aren't always what they seem" for more details.)

What we've found is that while sets from most of the major brands have consistently done well in the area of high-definition picture quality, with very good or excellent scores, many off-brands have been inconsistent performers, and some have consistently trailed most other TVs in this key attribute.

Insignia, Magnavox , Sanyo, and TCL are brands that have had some well-priced sets that earned them recommended status, and some even a CR Best Buy designation. A 39-inch Magnavox model currently in our Ratings, for example, topped that size category with excellent picture quality. But other models from these brands haven't performed as well, so you really need to evaluate these sets on a model-by-model basis, as well as from year to year. Last year, for example, TCL LCD sets did better than they have this year, although a few models in our Ratings had very good high-def picture quality.

Other brands, though, have been consistently lower performers. Although we haven't tested as many of their sets, the TVs we have evaluated from Coby, Element, Haier, and Hisense were among the lowest-rated models in their size categories, typically with picture quality that was judged only good. Sceptre has one model in our Ratings with only good HD picture quality, though another was very good.

If you're looking for a set that will serve your household as its main TV, we recommend a model that can deliver either very good or excellent high-definition picture quality. While few sets these days earn fair or poor grades for high-def picture quality, even a good score is now below average in our Ratings. But with the TV market so competitive, you should be able to find a fine model from a better-known brand for close to what you'd pay for one from a lesser-known name.

James K. Willcox

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